When my family moved to Detroit, the summer between my first and second grade, Tommy was the first friend I made. He too was the son of a pastor—so we had that in common—but his mother hated the idea of punishment.
Tommy’s mother caught us smoking cigarette butts behind their church which was right next door to their house. (How could we have been so stupid?) She explained that the butts have other people’s germs. When that insight failed to motivate him, she offered a pack of gum for every day he didn’t smoke.
Instead of obedience, Tommy’s mom favored explanation, “Do you really want someone’s butt in your mouth?”, and bribery. (My own mother’s response was more pointed and painful.)
Reasoning and bribery didn’t stick. The pleasure of sex and drugs made more sense (and paid better) than his mother’s urgings and graft. By the time he was twenty, Tommy had been arrested for drugs that he sold to support his pregnant girlfriend.
[This article is about obedience not about parenting—though there are implications for parenting as well.]
Tommy’s father favored stricter discipline but his mom’s philosophy was, “I don’t want to crush his spirit.” She let him crush his own.
God’s Commandments Seem Odd
God’s first commandment in Scripture was, “Don’t eat from that tree.” God doesn’t explain it. He doesn’t say, “Fruit from that tree is high in cholesterol and you don’t want clogged arteries.”
It’s odd. I would think his first command would be to avoid something obviously bad: “Don’t kill,” or, “Don’t hurt each other.”
God’s first command is to forbid something that appears good. Many subsequent commands make more sense: don’t kill, lie, or steal. But his very first commandment prohibits something attractive and appealing. With no further enlightenment.
We want understanding: “Just give me an explanation!” But agreement is not obedience. Reliance on agreement means that our real master is our own understanding (and sometimes God happens to get it right). Real obedience arises from believing God knows more than we do.
Only when obedience doesn’t make sense do we begin to learn to obey. Why was God’s first command so mysterious? Because the heart of obedience is allowing God to be Lord.
Godly obedience means trusting the inexplicable commands of God no matter how strongly our hearts speak contrary, or our cultures disagree, or our feelings rebel, or our desires overwhelm.
We Need the Hard to Receive the Soft
Scripture overflows with puzzling directives that don’t make sense. They include decrees about sexuality, money, work and rest, gender, parenting, marriage, and even good deeds. Some seem sensible (because of our personality or culture) while others seem ridiculous.
Obedience means making God our Lord. The essence of worship is not the songs that begin our church service. Worship begins when we declare, “Your ways not mine.”
And it’s a two-way street. When God becomes our Lord—and only when he becomes our Lord—we can receive his equally inexplicable assurances. Agreement-based obedience trains us to trust our own feelings or understandings. But what hope will our emotions and reason be when our hearts tell us that even God couldn’t love us?
When our hearts are dismayed (or our spirits are crushed), we need a trustworthy Lord to set things right:
“If our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and he knows everything.”